Fresh off a victory against the Avalanche, there is suddenly some exciting topics in the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs. If you missed my last column, I was unanimously taken to task by the internet for suggesting the Leafs call up William Nylander and attempt to make the Playoffs this year. As one person put it, I am (by which I assume he meant people like me) “the reason the Leafs never win.” As apparently reasonable analysis has been the root of the problem for fifty years!
My point was simple really, and shouldn’t have been controversial: The Leafs have four players that make finishing low enough to draft in the top five unlikely (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, James Van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri) when you consider their roster is loaded with effective role-players (Winnik, Komarov, Paranteau and Boyes) they have Mike Babcock as their coach, James Reimer has been amazing, the peripheral numbers suggest their record should be better than it is and that they are playing in a pretty weak division.
Given all that, it stands to reason that the Leafs should focus on the present and take advantage of a chance to make the Playoffs. This doesn’t mean selling off the future for now, nor does it mean putting an end to attempting to clear the roster of players like Bozak, Polak, Hunwich etc. who are not here long-term no matter how you slice it, but it does mean that an attempt at tanking is out of the question. The Leafs can still smartly add assets and plan for a future while instilling a winning attitude and gaining (at worst) the experience of a playoff race for their future core.
I called it a hybrid-rebuild and I think it’s far more sensible than tanking on purpose when you consider the odds of getting the top pick are 1 in 5 even if you get 30th, the value of playoff experience and that “suck for five years and draft high” A.K.A the “proper rebuild” virtually never works unless the team experiences luck that cannot be counted on (for example drafting Kane/ Toews, Crosby/Malkin or Backstrom/Ovechkin in back-to-back years).
Anyways, its safe to say that most of Leafs Nation does not agree, which I suspect is because two of the players the Leafs should be/are building around, Kadri and Gardiner, are so much better than they are given credit for. I think that once this team starts wining for a few months, that people will come around on them and realize that a Rielly, Gardiner, Kadri, JVR, Nylander, Marner core is better, by a mile, than anything the team could put together by tanking for the next three years, because that will effectively waste the peak/prime years of all those players, with the exception of Rielly.
But it doesn’t really matter what we think, because the guy in charge, he doesn’t appear to care about drafting, patience or what’s considered proper: “We would like to be in the playoff spot,” Babcock told the media yesterday, while pointing that they sit three points back. (Four now after a Detroit overtime loss last night).
And why wouldn’t he? After a month that found them close to the basement of the NHL standings, switch starting goalies and ice some of the worst (by results) goal scoring and special teams in the NHL, he has the Leafs sitting three points out of a Playoff spot with every reason to think they’ll get better going forward and a top-six player waiting in the wings ready to go.
Yesterday it was revealed that the New York Islanders defensemen Travis Hamonic has asked to be traded to a team closer to his home in Manitoba. Now, Toronto is something like the 8th closet team to that location, so while you figure the Jets would be the front-runner, you have to assume the Leafs would have interest.
Hamonic is a right-shooting defeneman who is 25 years-old, and locked up for his entire prime at a reasonable cap-hit of under $4 million /year. Despite playing on a team with arguably two top 20 NHL defenseman (Leddy and Boychuk) Hamonic led the Islanders in 5v5 ice-time last year, and was second in scoring with 23 5v5 points (37 led the league) which was just outside the top-twenty, despite missing 11 games.
It is my opinion that the Leafs should do everything possible to acquire him. He may want to go to Winnipeg, but the Islanders can’t limit themselves to one location for a player of this caliber. The Leafs would then have three of six pieces for their blue-line set for the next decade (Rielly, Gardiner, Hamonic) as well as having Scott Harrington, Stuart Percy and Travis Dermott in the pipeline.
The rarity of a player of Hamonic’s ability and age being available, coupled with the fact it would give the Leafs three potentially elite defensemen to build around is something too good to pass up. It may not be where Hamonic wants to come (although he’s rich and can fly anywhere, so maybe just living in Canada puts him close enough to where he wants to be) and it may not be that the Leafs can afford to acquire him, but they have to at least look. He’s the kind of player you hope you get when you get a top-ten pick, so they should be all over this.
The Leafs are in Carolina to take on the Hurricanes tomorrow and then in Boston for a game Saturday. If they can win both games – and neither team is really better than them – they would have points in nine of ten games and be among the hottest teams in the league.
So far, they are fun to watch, easy to cheer for and I am really enjoying this season so far. I was on board for a last place finish, but after realizing it’s impossible, I figure I might as well enjoy what we have and hope for the best. For people who want a “proper” rebuild, I should point out that Rielly, JVR, Kadri and Gardiner, Nylander and Marner amount to six consecutive excellent first-round draft picks (2nd 2007, 17th 2008, 7th 2009, 5th 2012, 8th 2014 and 4th 2015) so they have already done much of what a team doing a proper rebuild would do. I would say that by the time you have five top-ten picks on your roster, you’re pretty close to having a rebuild team.
Add in two firsts next year, prospects like Connor Brown, Andreas Johnson, Jeremy Bracco and Kasperi Kapanen and you have an
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.